Across the northern Syrian province of Idlib, there is intense diplomatic and military activity, as the last rebel stronghold prepares for an attack by the forces of Bashar Al Assad. It is certainly not the calm before the storm: the province, west of Aleppo, has felt the effect of air strikes, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings and assassinations just in the past few days. Civilians are anxious, wondering what will happen and where they can escape to when the real fighting begins. And it will almost certainly start, because Idlib is strategically placed for all the parties involved in the war.
Idlib is the last area still in rebel hands. The major rebel group is Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), a former Al Qaida affiliate, but the Free Syrian Army, now backed by Turkey, also has a presence there. Half the population are internally displaced, comprising Syrians from other parts of the country who have fled or been relocated here.
In the past few days, more have arrived: hundreds of rebel fighters and their families from Deraa, the southern city retaken by the regime two weeks ago, have been relocated to Idlib.
At the same time, others have left; thousands of Syrians from two towns, Foua and Kefraya, inside Idlib province, are being relocated to regime-controlled areas. After years of trying, an agreement to do that was finally announced last week, leading to a sense that a new development is about to take place.
What that development is, few can say. The best-case scenario is that a de-escalation agreement holds. The worst is that the regime does what it has already done in Ghouta and Deraa: ignore the agreement and begin an assault, perhaps as early as this week.
Idlib today is an unusual area. On two sides, east and south, are the regime’s forces. To the west is the Turkish border, and to the north the border area that is Syrian territory but controlled by Turkey. That makes Idlib strategically important for both Turkey and the Syrian regime. Turkey, Iran and Russia have a presence throughout the area and Turkey, especially, has set up military posts, which it warned last week it would not abandon. The question is, who will be prepared to fight for the province?
One possibility is that Idlib, as the last place to which rebels have been relocated, will be spared, the conflict “frozen,” until a future deal can be worked out. This is Turkey’s preferred option, because it would allow the FSA presence in the region to continue. Yet it is unlikely, if only because Idlib is too valuable to the regime and not valuable enough to Turkey.
Turkey’s main interest is in preventing Kurdish groups from forming anything like a state along its border. It was willing to wage military conflict in Afrin earlier this year in order to stop that happening.
But it has no such interest in Idlib, which is deep inside Syrian territory and will require Turkish troops to operate far from their border. Turkey can allow the regime to retake it and still keep its troops on the border.
For the Syrian regime, however, Idlib has immense propaganda value. Retaking it so soon after Deraa would signal that the revolution is over within Syria’s borders. Allowing it to continue in Turkish hands would leave that question open.
Idlib is also not merely a city in the hands of the rebels, but an entire region that stretches from the outskirts of Aleppo. It is almost unimaginable that the regime would allow the outskirts of the country’s largest city to be controlled by non-regime groups.
Those inside the city are not waiting to discover the answer. They have decided that the strike from the regime is coming soon and they are preparing the ground. Rebel groups have started killing each other.
ISIS, which has a presence there, has started assassinating FSA rebels, using drive-by shootings and car bombs. Graphic video has been posted online, showing that ISIS is still a presence and has lost none of its instinct for bloody propaganda. The major rebel group HTS has also been active, attacking ISIS safe houses. The rebels are turning on each other.
The idea is to clear the city of resistance ahead of an expected attack. If that attack comes from Turkey, ISIS want to be prepared; if it comes from the regime, HTS are concerned ISIS would take advantage.
It all makes for a confusing situation, in which it is difficult to tell friend from foe, precisely the sort of maelstrom in which ISIS thrives. Faced with the loss of their last pieces of territory, all the rebel groups will fight hard – and that will mean heavy civilian casualties.
The tragedy of Idlib is that there is almost no imaginable way the inevitable assault will not be a bloodbath. The jihadists holed up there have no way out, nor do the civilians. In Deraa, the rebel groups negotiated a way out, to Idlib. But after Idlib, there are no options. The regime will use its now well-known method of indiscriminate aerial bombing. Civilians, caught in the middle, will bear the brunt of the casualties.
With two million people in the province, the United Nations has been warning for months that any attack by the regime would be “a fresh humanitarian disaster” on the scale of Aleppo. But with the eyes of the world elsewhere, the people of Idlib can only wait and wonder when the bombs will start to fall.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
AFP PHOTO/OMAR HAJ KADOUR